Making the transition from film to digital presents a photographer with significant challenges and even if you’ve never shot film, the semi- and professional digital cameras, with their bewildering array of menu choices can be daunting and could take considerable time to understand and master even just a few of them. The difficulties they present in their seemingly endless variety of permutations more than compensate by offering the photographer an astonishing array of choices. Having so many variations to choose from gives you, the photographer, a tremendous amount of control over how you see and how you choose to interpret what you are seeing. The results can be astonishing and take your work far beyond anything that analog photography could be capable of in so simple and easy a fashion. The only downside is the learning curve. With so many options, it can take a good deal of time to venture into the world of menus and then further into the depths of mastering them to your advantage. So don’t just shoot on auto-pilot. Get down into the depths of your camera and make it work for you!
The two most critical components of your DSLR are: white balance and the cumulative functions, or parameters (as one camera company calls them), which we’ll call the film components: Saturation and contrast. Taken together and properly utilized, these controls will offer you unprecedented capabilities for one ultimate purpose: better pictures.
In the old days, trying to fit a particular film to any given light situation often required the use of filters, if you could control your light sources, or choosing a film to fit the circumstances. You were basically locked in. But with digital, you can choose your menu option to suit your lighting, whether it be daylight, tungsten, an overcast day, or even fluorescent for that matter. Now, with the flip of a switch, so to speak, you can adjust your camera settings to match the light source. Even if you forget to make the change, it’s going to show up on your LED display and will be very easy to spot. Fluorescent lighting turns everything in the film spectrum an ugly green color.
White balance is most important with skin tones and different light sources can wreak havoc on the face. And when it comes to white balance, your primary subject, whatever it is, has priority. Many times you will encounter a situation with as many as three light sources. Choose your subject and balance your camera for that subject and let the rest fall where they may. Digital cameras are good, but they’re not that good. At least not yet! Using a flash on an overcast day will render everything else blue when you set your white balance to flash. Use a reflector on the same subject on the same day and you need to switch your white balance to bring everything into accord. In winter when photographing people, it is possible to use a filter on your flash to warm up those pale skin tones and deliberately render the entire background in blue. It makes for a nice effect. But you must be intentional in order to create these kinds of effects. The only other way to create effective white balance is to change the camera’s color temperature by shooting a white card, filling up the entire frame and adjusting your camera settings to bring the white card into complete neutrality. Using this technique, especially in a controlled environment, will allow you to manage color throughout your shoot. Spend a day experimenting: change your white balance under every lighting circumstance you confront. Take a friend out on a sunny day and see the differences, then find a shady spot and go through all your choices there. Go indoors and shoot that same subject under fluorescent bulbs and incandescents (regular light bulbs). Compare your results to the auto white balance feature. The variations you can come up with will offer some interesting photos. You may not ever want to use them, but now you’ll know exactly what to do and what not to do with those choices.
Then there are Parameters. The two main parameters are Contrast and Saturation. There are others, such as sharpness, but except under very unusual circumstances, sharpness is best left to post production work. The photographer who shoots digital ought to be shooting in RAW format for maximum rendering of information. Sometimes it becomes necessary to shoot RAW plus small jpg when you need to get thumbnails out to a client, or if you want to quickly put up a website, but RAW should be your first and last choice. That is where contrast and saturation will be most useful.
The difference between light and dark, between highlights and shadows, contrast can greatly affect how your camera records a scene. Simply put, on rainy days or overcast days, or in situations where the subject matter doesn’t have a lot of blacks and whites (think gray tones), shooting with a higher contrast, or even the highest is going to expand the tonal range of your photos by increasing the blacks and bumping up any highlights. The only danger here is with highlights. By increasing the contrast you may push some highlights to the point where you lose detail. Check your histogram and adjust your exposure to bring those highlights down into a “normal” range to compensate. The same can be said for shadows where detail can make for rich, deeply black pictures. Just make sure you don’t lose that detail. Detail in both highlights and shadows is the most important part of good photography. Lose one or the other and you lose depth in your photographs.
Conversely, a bright sunny day with a lot of white in your photos can cause you to lose a lot of detail. You can adjust your exposure to bring the highlights down into a more acceptable range where those details become apparent, or in combination with exposure, you can bring your contrast control way, way down to where the scene “softens up.” The only real danger in taking this to extremes is you risk the possibility of washing out your photo: everything will look flat and dull. In reducing contrast, you may run the risk of opening up the shadows to the point where you lose any real black tones.
With a little bit of experimentation, you can take yourself into deeper photographic waters and exert greater control over your pictures. Letting your camera do the work for you by way of leaving it on automatic removes you from your creativity. Get down into the depths of your camera’s functionality and become a better photographer in the process. That is, after all, what good artists do. They’re constantly pushing the boundaries of their craft!